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A delightful, fascinating chronicle of Christopher's search for "old roses"--the original breed which all but vanished after 1867, when roses were hybridized. "What sticks in the mind is the stories he tells and the people he's met, researched or gone to look for--the mad, passionate, wildly uncompromising people, fixed on a flower."--New York Times Book Review.
My own introduction to old-fashioned roses was accidental, but almost inevitable, since I discovered gardening through the pages of a two-thousand-year-old agricultural treatise. Classics were my first love, most particularly Latin literature and archaeology, but three years of chasing Caesar's ghost through the dusty stacks of the Brown University library left me ready for a change. In the fall of my junior year, Ispent a semester in Rome. That city, where modern tenements and shops squat in the shells of ancient monuments, fascinated me. The obtrusion of a broken column or triumphal arch only accentuated the vitality of the streets, the colors, the noise, the smell of the foods and the bite of cold Frascati wine. One evening, a favorite professor and I climbed a hill on the outskirts to watch the sun set over the city. As I drank in the rich, hazy vistas of reds, grays and browns, he turned to me, smiled, and said, "What a pity we can't dig it all up."
A few days later in the library, I stumbled over a stray volume of Marcus Porcius Cato's De Agricultura-On Farming. Within a few pages, I knew I'd discovered my escape. Nicknamed "the Censor," Cato was the moral conscience of the second century B.C.; and in this book he urged his fellow Romans to abandon the baths and banquets and return to a simpler, rural way of life. "In his early manhood," the Censor contended, "the head of the household should be eager to plant his land." I found that I was, or at least I thought I was after reading Cato's advice on buying a farm and establishing vineyards, orchards and gardens. It was from farmers that sturdiest men came, or so the old Roman led me to believe. Likewise, it was men engaged in this pursuit who were, according to the same authority, least given to thinking evil thoughts.
I didn't want to doubt the Censor. He was the man, I learned, who succeeded in banning all Greek philosophers and rhetoricians from the city of Rome, a coup that won my jealous admiration, since I was that semester waging a desperate battle with the devious complexities of their prose. Fired by Cato's vision of a return to the soil, I abandoned plans of an academic career and upon my return to Brown struck a deal with the dean for an early graduation so that I could enroll immediately in a horticultural training program at the New York Botanical Garden.
There the gardeners taught me never to call soil "dirt" (an unforgivable slight to that precious commodity), to swear in Sicilian and to work all day doubled over, because kneeling, even though it might ease my back, would decrease my productivity. They taught me, too-especially the older gardeners, Ralph, Dominic and Patsy-the dignity that comes from a life of collaboration with nature. In 1976, after a two-year apprenticeship, I graduated and had the good fortune to find immediately a job that called on all my skills, academic as well as horticultural. Columbia University commissioned me to restore an old estate it had been given, 126 acres of woods, lawns and gardens along the crest of the Hudson River Palisades.
The landscaping had been done in 1929; it was one of the few great gardens to emerge from the crash and subsequent depression, and it had been built in the grand style. Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts, the successors of Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park, had drafted the plans. One hundred and eighty-seven sheets drawn in the most exquisite detail, the blueprints included the name and location of every tree, shrub or flower in the original gardens.
Though I recognized the species names, very few of the cultivars were familiar to me. Of the 27,500 bulbs planted in the fall of 1930, for example, I didn't know a single one. But that didn't surprise me. Fashions in flowers change as regularly as they do in clothes and cars, and nurserymen are quick to dispose of last-year's-model tulips or hyacinths. But roses were, and are, another matter. A bed of roses in full bloom, especially if it is a bit wild and overgrown, gratifies in me a repressed yearning for colorful, sensual disorder. Roses I had grown by the hundreds, and I prided myself on my ability to maintain them in an apparent state of romantic abandon while secretly cultivating them in perfect health. I thought I knew roses inside out, so I was piqued when I found one on the plans that I didn't recognize. What was this 'Ile de France'?
I liked the name. It had an elegance that I missed in the 'Voodoos,' 'Razzle Dazzles,' and 'Just Joeys' I found in my contemporary catalogues. 'Tiffany'-now that was a modern rose. It sounded like something you would hear, followed by a slap and a wail, at the supermarket. 'Ile de France' suggested other things: men in tuxedos and ladies in gowns, long summer evenings, champagne cocktails, and a party that never ended. That sounded like a rose I wanted, and, surely, it was the rose for this estate.
Besides, the idea of a classic rose suited my prejudices. Like most gardeners, I have an abiding mistrust of progress. Synthetic fertilizers, turbo-charged tools and genetic engineering may fill agriculturists and extension agents with visions of utopia, but they are far less attractive to the practitioners of a craft that has not changed in it essentials since Pliny the Younger's slaves spelled out their master's name in boxwood hedges. (Before leaving Brown, my horticultural education had progressed as far as the end of the first century A.D., and the letter in which this wealthy Roman man of letters described the landscaping of Tuscan villa.) Unfortunately, the nurserymen with whom I usually did business had never heard of 'Ile de France.' Nor had the librarian at the New York Botanical Garden, but she was able to put me in touch with someone who had, Lily Shohan.
Lily Shohan was Northeast Regional Coordinator for the Heritage Roses Group, "a fellowship of those who care about Old Roses." Lily was only too happy to answer my questions about 'Ile de France.' It was, she wrote me, a rambling rose that had been introduced on the market in 1922. It hadn't made much of an impression. Within eighteen years the name was reassigned to another rose, and "as for Ile de France, we can but suspect it was thrown out-discarded as not being worth the space it took up." Lily sounded well worth meeting.
On a gray February day I arrived at her house in the Taconic Mountains of upstate New York. Inside, there were roses in bloom. Ranked in pots along a west-facing window were four full-sized bushes, each one picked out with buds and even a blossom or two despite the season. It was a saffron-yellow blossom that caught my eye. Though large, it was a simpler rose than the modern Hybrid Teas to which I was accustomed. I have since learned to call it "semi-double," meaning that it has fewer petals than the typical florist's rose of today. One hundred and forty years ago, however, it held center stage in the shop windows. 'Safrano' was it name, Lily told me. It was "introduced" in 1839 (roses, like debutantes, do not appear unannounced: they must be formally presented to the public). The perfume was pleasantly odd-clean, fruity, almost acidic. It was supposed to recall the aroma of dried tea leaves, which was why this strain and its relatives were called "Tea roses."
Lily Shohan couldn't have presented a more striking contrast to the fragility of her flowers. She is the daughter of a dairy farmer, a sturdy countrywoman with a no-nonsense manner. Past middle age now, she still splits firewood that heats her house and digs her own garden. An explorer by nature, she had recently returned from a tour of English gardens, and her conversation was filled with the discoveries and incidents of that trip. The novelties had impressed her most-the eucalyptus tree she had seen on the outskirts of London, a subtropical tree flourishing unprotected at the same latitude as Labrador.
Yet coupled with her enthusiasm for the new was an abiding appreciation of the way of life in which she was raised. I had interrupted her in a search through a pile of nursery catalogues; she wanted seed, she told me, of a particular dwarf basil to try in her garden. Dropping a catalogue back on the pile, she berated the nurserymen for advertising not what was proven and good, but merely what would sell. Her house may be new-she built it in 1976-but it's set on land she knows well, thirty acres she has kept from the farm her parents bought in 1933, land that fed and clothed her as she grew up. And she's surrounded the house with rosebushes even older than the farm.
She cannot recall just when she developed her enthusiasm for roses-she's grown them since childhood-but she remembers precisely the occasion of her conversion to the old-fashioned varieties. Her parents had said they wanted to grow "roses like they have in the florist's window," so Lily bought them a dozen Hybrid Teas. Then came the winter of '58-'59, "a real heller," when temperatures dropped to thirty below. Though she had spent her Thanksgiving burying the base of each rosebush with a wheelbarrow-load of sandy soil, most of them died. She was determined to replace the bushes, but this time with something more persistent.
By reading through guides to rose growing, she learned that roses needn't be ephemeral; that they have, in fact, been a fixture of man's gardens since the days of the Pharaohs. William Penn brought garden roses to America in 1699-but according to Captain John Smith, the Quaker had been preceded by the Indians of the James River valley, who transplanted wild roses from wood and field to adorn their encampments. There are still roses the length of the Oregon trail, brought there by Conestoga wagon. Obviously, those gardeners hadn't reordered from the nursery every spring. So Lily turned her back on the roses of the modern hybridizers and returned to the varieties country people had grown for generations. They're tough, those old roses, and she likes that.
The roses Lily sought were not for sale then in any of the mass-market nursery catalogues, but she found she was not entirely alone in her interest. Lambertus Bobbink, a New Jersey nurseryman, had anticipated her by more than thirty years. His specialty was roses, and he had been intrigued by the antiques he had found in France. He'd amassed a collection of 3,000 plants which he shipped back to Rutherford; by 1932 he listed 200 types in his Bobbink & Atkins catalogue. In the booklet he distributed with these roses, Bobbink noted that conservative estimates placed the number of "Old Fashioned Roses" at a total of 6,5000 distinct cultivars. Of these, he calculated, less than a tenth were still in existence.
The challenge implicit in this situation proved irresistible to Ethelyn Keays, a clubwoman from New York who summered in Maryland's tidewater country. Her affection for old roses sprang from the survivors she had discovered on the farm she and her husband bought in Calvert County. She began to supplement this collection with bushes recovered from neighboring plantations, and in 1935, she published a book, Old Roses, in which she described all her finds, together with brief histories and genealogies. This in turn sparked a minor renaissance, encouraging two or three other rose growers, most notably Will Tillotson of Watsonville, California, to advertise limited selections of antique varieties.
Since Bobbink & Atkins had gone out of business in 1957, Lily placed her order with Tillotson's. But that alone didn't satisfy her-she had taken to heart the "Challenge to Rose-Lovers" that was the preface to Mrs. Keays's book. It charged readers with the rediscovery, protection and preservation of antique roses, and sent them out into the field to rescue the survivors of old gardens, to make "a real American collection of old roses still alive."
The white rose that climbs the corner of Lily's house is evidence of her success as a rose collector. She found the creamy, fragrant blossom in the garden of a colonial-era farmhouse down the road. By checking the flowers against Mrs. Keays's descriptions and those of other rose handbooks, Lily eventually identified the bush as Rosa alba 'Maxima.' Once known as the "Jacobite Rose," this blossom was the badge of supporters of the Stuart kings after their exile in 1688.
Lily didn't bother to collect seed, since she knew that garden roses don't reproduce true to form from seed. Even seeds taken from the same fruit (or "hip") rarely produce identical plants; sow 100 seeds from a given bush and, if 100 percent of them germinate, you will find yourself, almost certainly, with 100 different bushes. Transplanting the entire bush was not an option Lily considered very often, since that violates one of the basic rules of old-rose collecting. Unless threatened with destruction, the find must remain in situ and intact, available to other collectors. Instead, the rose must be cloned. That is, a piece of tissue is removed and induced to develop into a new, but genetically identical, plant.
"Cloning" is a modern-sounding word, but in the case of roses, the techniques involved date back, in a crude form, three thousand years, and require no more sophisticated equipment than a sharp knife. Chinese gardeners were the first to discover the principles of grafting and to use them to propagate exceptional trees and shrubs. This is still the method of choice for commercial growers: a bud is excised from the hybrid or garden rose and inserted into a slit the grower has made in the stem of the "rootstock," a rosebush of a type remarkable for its hardy, vigorous roots. Once the new bud sends up a shoot, the entire top of the rootstock bush is removed, forcing the roots to feed only the new shoot. For the nurseryman, the advantage of "budding," as it is called, is that it lends itself to mass-production. The procedure succeeds with almost every type of rose, and it produces bushes of fairly uniform size and quality in a predictable interval of time.
Amateur growers, however, generally prefer the simpler, though less dependable, method of rooting a cutting, and that is what Lily does. She's no expert, she's quick to point out; she just does it. With a pair of pruning shears, she'll cut a flowering shoot from a bush. She has found that the shoot has reached just the right stage of maturity by the time that it flowers: "Just as the bloom opens, or just as the petals fall, somewhere in there." A stem that's "blind" (without flower bud or blossom) she avoids, since "there's some indication that if you keep selecting blind wood, you're going to get a plant that doesn't bloom as much. At least that's the theory. If you keep selecting from a blind shoot, eventually you're going to get a blind bush.
Lily doesn't make the cut entirely clean either, preferring to take the cutting with a "heel," a sliver of the cane from which the shoot springs. Removing the flower, she cuts the shoot back to the "first true leaf"-a leaf that shows at least five leaflets. These cuts she then trims smooth with a razor blade, scraping the bark at the cutting's base, "wounding" it, to promote the formation of the callus that develops into roots. The only advantage that modern technology has given Lily over her Chinese predecessors is in the rooting hormone she uses, a synthetic duplicate of the chemical plants produce to initiate root formation. Dunking the cutting's base in this, she sticks it into a four-inch pot full of sterilized potting soil; though she uses a commercial blend of peat moss, vermiculite and perlite now, she thinks the soil she used to gather from her woods works better. It was in this homegrown "loom" that she rooted her Jacobite rose.
This process of cloning, a strange mixture of empirical plant lore, science, custom and superstition, makes Lily's roses, and those of other collectors, special. The rose Lily grew from that cutting is not a descendant of the rose Jacobites picked to wear in their buttonholes on the birthday of the Old Pretender (James III, the king who never reigned); it is a piece of the very same plant.
Excerpted from In Search of Lost Roses by Thomas Christopher Copyright © 1989 by Thomas Christopher . Excerpted by permission.
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